By Emma White
Remembrance Day at the Australian War Memorial in 1993 was a particularly significant occasion; that year an unknown Australian soldier was entombed in the Memorial grounds.
The idea of reburying the remains of an Australian who lost his life in the horrific trench warfare of the Western Front had existed since the 1920s. In 1992, a decision was taken to reinter a digger in a tomb in the Hall of Memory as an appropriate way of marking the 75th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice.
In late 1993, Memorial Director Brendan Kelson travelled with a small team to Adelaide Cemetery, near Villers-Brettoneaux in France, where the Commonwealth Graves Commission had identified four resting places that might yield a suitable candidate for repatriation. These men had been reburied from various battlefields after the war; their identities were lost to time. The first grave that was exhumed held the remains that would travel to Australia and be laid to rest at the Memorial.
The remains were handed to the delegation which would accompany them on their five day journey to Canberra. Ceremonies were held in significant European locations as the soldier’s remains were transported from Adelaide Cemetery. At Ypres, Belgian and Australian honour guards presented arms as the coffin passed through the Menin Gate.
Qantas provided a special flight, renamed “the Spirit of Remembrance” in honour of its passenger, and the Unknown Soldier arrived at Sydney Airport early in the morning on 7 November. The coffin was transported to RAAF air base Fairbairn in a Hercules C130 and was escorted to old Parliament House, where it lay in state in Kings Hall. Members of the public paid their respects in large numbers.
On 11 November, the Unknown Soldier was transported to the Australian War Memorial, traveling up Anzac Parade past a Guard of Honour formed by representatives of ex-service unit associations. A military bearer party of two warrant officers from each of the defence forces bore the coffin into the Memorial. The funeral ceremony was broadcast nationally, and a memorable eulogy was delivered by Prime Minister Paul Keating.
Bob Comb, a 93-year-old veteran of the Western Front, sprinkled soil from the battlefields of Pozieres into the tomb, and said “you’re home now, mate”. Twenty-seven years on, it feels like the Unknown Soldier had always been intended to rest in the Hall of Memory.